I saw this New York Times article and thought it merited at least a brief mention. The quickest summary is that the last American World War I veteran, Frank Buckles, has died, leaving the world with just two surviving servicemembers from that conflict, neither of them living in this hemisphere. I hope you’ll give the Times article some attention (it’s not long, I promise), since his was an interesting life.
I had to bring it up, of course, because as you know the war plays a critical role in the country’s idea of itself, and has loomed over many of the novels I’ve read so far, probably most visibly in His Family and One of Ours. The impact of World War I on this country’s leaders and decision-making in the decades that followed has long been underestimated, perhaps because we don’t see it as “our” war. It doesn’t fit a neat narrative like the Civil War or World War II. And it wasn’t prolonged enough to make us uncomfortable and ashamed, like Vietnam. So it gets relegated to the back of the line, jostling elbows and trading stories with the War of 1812 and the invasion of Grenada. But that’s far too diminished a role for a conflict as world-changing as it was.
I don’t know what it means that Frank is gone. Most of the country would never have gotten to meet him and hear his stories, not if he’d lived to be 150 years old. But I think the loss of living memory matters. I don’t know if that changes as we get into the events we have lots of video and audio recordings of—whether the disappearance of human memory will seem as profound a loss. I think it will remain pretty important. There’s a lot we don’t record, or misinterpret when we record it, or misrepresent by showing it only as a recording without understanding how immersive it really was. There are dangers too in trusting too much the very fallible thing that is the human memory: neither Frank Buckles nor I nor you can be quite certain that the way we remember our 17th birthday is the way it really was. But I am sorry to know he is gone, and think our collective ability to understand a war we set aside as a country is now a little diminished by it. I hope to get a better handle on that war, and on war in general, as I follow the country’s vision through the series of Pulitzer winners that span a century of warfare by which the United States has been affected profoundly. Maybe it’ll cause me to wish I could ask Frank a few questions, or both my now-departed WWII veteran grandfathers. I rather think it will.